The Walther P38 Was Germany’s Most Popular Wartime Pistol
Production totaled more than one million
In 1929, German gun-maker Waffenfabrik Walther began developing a new nine-millimeter pistol for military use. The development violated the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, so Walther kept it secret. Early Walther attempts focused on scaling up its “PP” line of pistols to chamber the larger nine-mil round. This pistol, the Militarpistole, wasn’t strong enough to withstand the pressures and recoil of the nine-by-19-millimeter round.
Walther began work on a new design in 1935 following a request from the Heereswaffenamt, the German army’s weapons-technology agency. The Heereswaffenamt wanted a pistol to replace the Luger P08 — one that would be cheaper and easier to manufacture and wouldn’t require specialized tooling.
Walther’s first design, the Militarisches Pistole, debuted in 1935 and featured locking blocks on each side of its breech. Georg, Eric and Fritz Walther, working in conjunction with Fritz Barthlemens, soon improved this design and submitted the resulting weapon — the Armee Pistole — in 1936. Early prototypes lacked the instantly recognizable front slide arch.
The pistol included a locking mechanism with a pivoting block beneath the barrel that cammed up to lock the breech. The design also had a pair of dual recoil springs on either side of the slide, helping to mitigate the sharp recoil that had caused the earlier Walther nine-mil blow-back pistols to fail. The Armee Pistole also had an enclosed hammer. Heereswaffenamt requested that the hammer be accessible to enable manual, single-action cocking.
The pistol used a short recoil action but its operation was unique. After firing, the pistol’s locking block locked the barrel and slide together, the slide and barrel initially moving rearward together until the bullet left the barrel and the locking block cammed downward, freeing the slide from the barrel and allowing it to continue recoiling. The dual recoil springs then returned the slide forward, stripping a new round from the magazine and moving it into the chamber.
For field trials, the company made 200 Armee Pistolen with varying barrel lengths as well as a wooden-holster stock option. The stock attached to the rear of the frame rather than to the pistol’s grip as in the Mauser C96. In response to the Heereswaffenamt’s request, the designers added an exposed, rounded hammer. Walther designated these pistols as “Mod. MP.”
In 1938, Walther redesignated the Mod.MPs as “Heeres Pistolen,“ and offered them for export. The HP introduced the classic spur hammer. The Swedish army placed an order for several thousand HPs, which it adopted as M/39s. However, the Swedes received only around 1,500 of the guns before the war began. The Swedes instead adopted the Finnish L-35 Lahti. Commercial production of the Heeres Pistolen continued on a reduced scale until 1944.
In late 1938, the German military adopted the HP as the P38, passing up designs from Mauser and Berlin-Suhler Werke. Walther began manufacturing the weapons in 1939 and first issued them in April 1940. Production of the older P08 ended in 1941.
While the P38 was simpler to produce than the P08 was, it was still a complicated pistol to manufacture due to its double-action lock work. Allied intelligence placed the cost of a new P38 at 31 Reichsmarks in 1945, while the cost of a P08 in 1942 was approximately 35 Reichsmarks — the savings were in manufacturing time, not in cost.
The P38 underwent some cosmetic changes but no major mechanical changes. It was widely considered one of the best combat pistols of the war by both German and Allied troops. Wartime production amounted to 1,144,000 pistols. The P38 remained in production after the war. Germany’s police and military used it for decades.